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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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This painting of San Sebastian is an example of late Renaissance Mannerism dating from 1577-1578 (some say 1576–1579) when El Greco had left Italy and was living in Spain. It is executed in oils onto canvas and measures 152cm x 191cm. The work is currently in Palencia Cathedral.

This is El Greco’s first life-size un-clothed male. The figure of the saint dominates the right half of the canvas (viewers perspective) and stands out in stark relief against the cloudy, blue-grey background. In legend San Sebastián was tied to a tree and pierced through with arrows. In this picture the tying is suggestive and the only tethering is of an outstretched arm secured across the bicep to the branch of a tree. Sebastian is naked apart from, for the sake of modesty, a piece of strategical placed linen, and one knee is resting on a large rock in the foreground. This is a devotional work presenting a suitable subject for meditation and prayer, during which the devote can try to imagine the agonies of the saint and to marvel at his faith in god in the presence of adversity.

Although this particular saint was shot with arrows, only three are visible; in the trunk of the tree; completely through the branch and one in the chest of the subject just below the breast. Despite this there is no recognition of pain on the saint’s face, in fact his eyes suggest rapture. The features of Sebastian are most likely those of the young man who posed for the artists. The elongated human form was to become typical of El Greco’s work. It is most evident here in the length of the torso and of the thighs. In fact, were the figure to stand straight he would be very tall indeed. Also typical of the artist is the use of chiaroscuro to create an ethereal feel to the scene.

The fame of Michelangelo weighed heavily on El Greco. He set the standard against which other artists working in Rome were judged. Nevertheless, El Greco recognised the great mans skills in drawing the human form and this is thought to be the impetus for his first attempt at the male nude. However, the construction of the painting is not, as many think, based on Michelangelo’s Adam from The Last Judgement, but, because the similarities between the two works are beyond coincidence, on the sculpture of Laocoon in the Vatican. El Greco would keep returning to this sculpture for inspiration and its influence can be seen in The Assumption of the Virgin, in which the pose adopted by St Peter mirrors almost exactly one of Laocoon’s sons.

The patronage of the painting is unknown, but, although largely conjecture, there are several contenders. Diego de Castillo, Dean of Toledo is one candidate. He commissioned the artist to create the altarpieces in Santa Domingo el Antigua and had previously been a priest in Palencia. Moreover, his son Luis was possibly an acquaintance of El Greco when they were both in Rome. The records of Palencia Cathedral document that the painting was listed in the Chapel of St. Jerome and belong to the Reinoso family. This is also quite possible as Francisco Reinoso was secretary to Pope Pious V and Fransisco may well have commissioned the painting. A less credible patron is Bernardino Mendoza who was know to have commissioned a painting of San Sebastian which, in 1882, appeared in the Collegeo de Nuestra Senora de Loreto or San Bernardino in Salamanca.

The irony in the painting is that the viewer who believes they are looking at the martyrdom of San Sebastián, an event believed to have occurred in Rome in 288AD, would be wrong. Sebastian, aided by Irene of Rome, recovered from the wounds caused by the arrows to fight another day. However, his next attempt to convince the Emperor Diocletian of the error of his ways would be his last. After heckling the passing Diocletian from a staircase he was taken away and clubbed to death.

San Sebastian is the most frequently depicted of all saints. The earliest representation of him leading a procession of 26 martyrs is in the Basilica Sant’ Apollinaire Nuevo in Ravenna and dates from between 527AD-565AD. There is also a mosaic in the Church of San Pieter in Vincoli dating from 682AD featuring the saint, but not his martyrdom. In fact, there is no depiction prior to 1000AD featuring arrows. Botticelli, Titian and Bellini have all created works featuring Sebastian and, in more recent times, John Singer Sargent has added his own contribution.